Cognitive Processing

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 53–62 | Cite as

Impaired working memory updating affects memory for emotional and non-emotional materials the same way: evidence from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Vahid NejatiEmail author
  • Mohammad Ali Salehinejad
  • Azam Sabayee
Research Report


Due to the limited capacity of working memory (WM), efficient suppression of no longer relevant memory contents (inhibition) and revising the current contents of the memory (updating) are crucial factors in memorizing. However, not every individual is able to do so; among them are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients who seem to have trouble forgetting trauma-related materials, making their memory overloaded with irrelevant information. The present study assumes that the inability to forget in PTSD patients is due to the impaired updating function of WM and, therefore, suggests that these individuals have inferior WM function for both emotional and unemotional materials. A sample of 30 male veterans with PTSD and 30 healthy individuals (mean age = 46.62, SD = 5.23) participated in the study completing PTSD Checklist, Digit Span Task, and a computerized n-back task. Results revealed that although PTSD subjects showed a generally inferior WM compared with normal individuals; however, their WM performance for emotional and non-emotional stimuli was not significantly different. Supporting the main hypothesis of the study, the findings suggest that a dysfunctional updating function of WM underlies both forgetting and memorizing which affects memory for both emotional and non-emotional material similarly.


Working memory updating PTSD Forgetting Memorizing Inhibition 


  1. Alloway TP, Gathercole SE, Kirkwood H, Elliot J (2009) The cognitive and behavioral characteristics of children with low working memory. Child Dev 80(2):606–621CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Aslan A, Bäuml K-HT (2011) Individual differences in working memory capacity predict retrieval-induced forgetting. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cognit 37:264–269. doi: 10.1037/a0021324 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baddeley A (1986) Working memory. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  4. Baddeley A (2000) The episodic buffer: a new component of working memory? Trends Cogn Sci 4:417–423. doi: 10.1016/S1364-6613(00)01538-2 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Barlow DH (2002) Anxiety and its disorders: the nature and treatment of anxiety and panic, 2nd edn. Guilford Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  6. Brewin CR, Smart L (2005) Working memory capacity and suppression of intrusive thoughts. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry 36:61–68. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2004.11.006 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Blanchard EB, Jones-Alexander J, Buckley TC, Forneris CA (1996) Psychometric properties of the PTSD checklist (PCL). Behav Res Ther 34:669–673CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Buchanan TW, Tranel D (2008) Stress and emotional memory retrieval: effects of sex and cortisol response. Neurobiol Learn Mem 89:134–141. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2007.07.003 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Burriss L, Ayers E, Ginsberg J, Powell D (2008) Learning and memory impairment in PTSD: relationship to depression. Depress Anxiety 25:149–157CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Cisler JM, Koster EHW (2010) Mechanisms of attentional biases towards threat in anxiety disorders: an integrative review. Clin Psychol Rev 30:203–216. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2009.11.003 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Colzato LS, Zmigrod S, Hommel B (2013) Working memory updating predicts individual differences in updating stimulus–response episodes. Vis Cogn 21:13–22. doi: 10.1080/13506285.2013.763883 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Costa V, Fischer-Baum S, Capasso R, Miceli G, Rapp B (2011) Temporal stability and representational distinctiveness: key functions of orthographic working memory. Cogn Neuropsychol 28:338–362CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Cottencin O et al (2006) Directed forgetting in PTSD: a comparative study versus normal controls. J Psychiatr Res 40:70–80. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2005.04.001 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Dalgleish T, Taghavi R, Neshat-Doost H, Moradi A, Canterbury R, Yule W (2003) Patterns of processing bias for emotional information across clinical disorders: a comparison of attention memory, and prospective cognition in children and adolescents with depression, generalized anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol 32:10–21. doi: 10.1207/S15374424JCCP3201_02 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Engle RW, Kane MJ (2003) Executive attention, working memory capacity, and a two-factor theory of cognitive control. Psychology Learn Motivation 44:145–199. doi: 10.1016/S0079-7421(03)44005-X CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Festini SB, Reuter-Lorenz PA (2013) The short- and long-term consequences of directed forgetting in a working memory task. Memory 21:763–777. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2012.754900 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Fisk JE, Sharp CA (2004) Age-related impairment in executive functioning: updating, inhibition, shifting, and access. J Clin Exp Neuropsychol 26:874–890CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Fregni F, Boggio PS, Nitsche MA, Rigonatti SP, Pascual-Leone A (2006) Cognitive effects of repeated sessions of transcranial direct current stimulation in patients with depression. Depress Anxiety 23:482–484. doi: 10.1002/da.20201 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Galletly C, Clark CR, McFarlane AC, Weber DL (2001) Working memory in posttraumatic stress disorder—an event-related potential study. J Trauma Stress 14:295–309. doi: 10.1023/A:1011112917797 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Gurvits TV, Lasko NB, Schachter SC, Kuhne AA, Orr SP, Pitman RK (1993) Neurological status of Vietnam veterans with chronic posttraumatic stress disorder The. J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci 5:183–188. doi: 10.1176/jnp.5.2.183 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Honzel N, Justus T, Swick D (2014) Posttraumatic stress disorder is associated with limited executive resources in a working memory task. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci 14:792–804CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  22. Jenkins MA, Langlais PJ, Delis D, Cohen RA (2000) Attentional dysfunction associated with posttraumatic stress disorder among rape survivors. Clin Neuropsychol 14:7–12CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Johnsen GE, Asbjørnsen AE (2008) Consistent impaired verbal memory in PTSD: a meta-analysis. J Affect Disord 111:74–82. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2008.02.007 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Keane TM, Caddell JM, Taylor KL (1988) Mississippi scale for combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder: three studies in reliability and validity. J Consult Clin Psychol 56:85–90. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.56.1.85 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Kelly MM, Tyrka AR, Anderson GM, Price LH, Carpenter LL (2008) Sex differences in emotional and physiological responses to the Trier Social Stress Test. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry 39:87–98. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2007.02.003 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Küper K, Karbach J (2016) Increased training complexity reduces the effectiveness of brief working memory training: evidence from short-term single and dual n-back training interventions. J Cogn Psychol 28:199–208. doi: 10.1080/20445911.2015.1118106 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Levaux M-N, Vezzaro J, Larøi F, Offerlin-Meyer I, Danion J, Van der Linden M (2009) Cognitive rehabilitation of the updating sub-component of working memory in schizophrenia: a case study. Neuropsychol Rehabil 19:244–273CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Levens SM, Gotlib IH (2010) Updating positive and negative stimuli in working memory in depression. J Exp Psychol Gen 139:654–664. doi: 10.1037/a0020283 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  29. Lonsdorf TB, Haaker J, Kalisch R (2014) Long-term expression of human contextual fear and extinction memories involves amygdala, hippocampus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex: a reinstatement study in two independent samples. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 9:1973–1983. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsu018 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  30. MacDonald SWS, Stigsdotter-Neely A, Derwinger A, Bäckman L (2006) Rate of acquisition, adult age, and basic cognitive abilities predict forgetting: new views on a classic problem. J Exp Psychol Gen 135:368–390. doi: 10.1037/0096-3445.135.3.368 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. McNally RJ (2003) Psychological mechanisms in acute response to trauma. Biol Psychiatry 53:779–788. doi: 10.1016/S0006-3223(02)01663-3 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Miller EK, Cohen JD (2001) An integrative theory of prefrontal cortex function. Annu Rev Neurosci 24:167–202CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Miyake A, Friedman NP, Emerson MJ, Witzki AH, Howerter A, Wager TD (2000) The unity and diversity of executive functions and their contributions to complex “frontal lobe” tasks: a latent variable analysis. Cogn Psychol 41:49–100. doi: 10.1006/cogp.1999.0734 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Moradi AR, Taghavi R, Neshat-Doost HT, Yule W, Dalgleish T (2000) Memory bias for emotional information in children and adolescents with posttraumatic stress disorder: a preliminary study. J Anxiety Disord 14:521–534. doi: 10.1016/S0887-6185(00)00037-2 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Nejati V, Salehinejad MA, Shahidi N, Abedin A (2017) Psychological intervention combined with direct electrical brain stimulation (PIN-CODES) for treating major depression: a pre-test, post-test, follow-up pilot study. Neurol Psychiatry Brain Res 25:15–23. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2016.12.036 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Nezhad MAS, Khodapanahi MK, Yekta M, Mahmoodikahriz B, Ostadghafour S (2011) Defense styles in internalizing and externalizing disorders. Procedia Soc Behav Sci 30:236–241CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Öhman A (2005) The role of the amygdala in human fear: automatic detection of threat. Psychoneuroendocrinology 30:953–958. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2005.03.019 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Owen AM, McMillan KM, Laird AR, Bullmore E (2005) N-back working memory paradigm: a meta-analysis of normative functional neuroimaging studies. Hum Brain Mapp 25:46–59. doi: 10.1002/hbm.20131 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Packard PA, Rodríguez-Fornells A, Stein LM, Nicolás B, Fuentemilla L (2014) Tracking explicit and implicit long-lasting traces of fearful memories in humans. Neurobiol Learn Mem 116:96–104. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2014.09.004 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Paunovic N, Lundh LG, Öst LG (2002) Attentional and memory bias for emotional information in crime victims with acute posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). J Anxiety Disord 16:675–692. doi: 10.1016/S0887-6185(02)00136-6 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Pelegrina S et al (2015) Normative data on the n-back task for children and young adolescents. Front Psychol 6:1544. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01544 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  42. Pineles SL, Mostoufi SM, Ready CB, Street AE, Griffin MG, Resick PA (2011) Trauma reactivity, avoidant coping, and PTSD symptoms: a moderating relationship? J Abnorm Psychol 120:240–246. doi: 10.1037/a0022123 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  43. Prinzmetal W, McCool C, Park S (2005) Attention: reaction time and accuracy reveal different mechanisms. J Exp Psychol Gen 134:73CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Rosenthal EN, Riccio CA, Gsanger KM, Jarratt KP (2006) Digit Span components as predictors of attention problems and executive functioning in children. Arch Clin Neuropsychol 21:131–139. doi: 10.1016/j.acn.2005.08.004 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Ruggiero KJ, Ben KD, Scotti JR, Rabalais AE (2003) Psychometric properties of the PTSD checklist— civilian version. J Trauma Stress 16:495–502CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Salehinejad MA, Rostami R, Ghanavati E (2015) Transcranial direct current stimulation of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of major depression: improving visual working memory reducing depressive symptoms. NeuroRegulation 2:37–49. doi: 10.15540/nr.2.1.37 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Salehinejad MA, Ghanavai E, Rostami R, Nejati V (2017) Cognitive control dysfunction in emotion dysregulation and psychopathology of major depression (MD): evidence from transcranial brain stimulation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). J Affect Disord 210:241–248. doi: 10.1016/j.npbr.2017.05.003 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Salthouse TA (1996) The processing-speed theory of adult age differences in cognition. Psychol Rev 103:403–428CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Schacter DL (2001) The seven sins of memory: How the mind forgets and remembers. Mifflin and Company, BostonGoogle Scholar
  50. Schweizer S, Dalgleish T (2011) Emotional working memory capacity in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Behav Res Ther 49:498–504. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2011.05.007 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  51. Stout DM, Shackman AJ, Larson CL (2013) Failure to filter: anxious individuals show inefficient gating of threat from working memory. Front Hum Neurosci 7:58CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  52. Thomaes K et al (2009) Increased activation of the left hippocampus region in Complex PTSD during encoding and recognition of emotional words: a pilot study. Psychiatry Res Neuroimaging 171:44–53. doi: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2008.03.003 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  53. Tottenham N et al (2009) The NimStim set of facial expressions: judgments from untrained research participants. Psychiatry Res 168:242–249. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2008.05.006 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  54. Tulving E, Madigan SA (1970) Memory and Verbal Learning Ann Rev Psychol 21:437–484 doi: 10.1146/
  55. Vallar G, Papagno C (1995) Neuropsychological impairments of short-term memory. In: Baddeley AD, Wilson BA, Watts FN (eds) Handbook of memory disorders. John Wiley, Oxford, England, pp 135–165Google Scholar
  56. van Rooij SJ, Geuze E, Kennis M, Rademaker AR, Vink M (2015) Neural correlates of inhibition and contextual cue processing related to treatment response in PTSD. Neuropsychopharmacology 40:667–675CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  57. Vasterling JJ, Brailey K, Constans JI, Sutker PB (1998) Attention and memory dysfunction in posttraumatic stress disorder. Neuropsychology 12:125CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Vogel EK, McCollough AW, Machizawa MG (2005) Neural measures reveal individual differences in controlling access to working memory. Nature 438:500–503CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  59. Ward J (2015) The student’s guide to cognitive neuroscience. Psychology Press, New York, NYGoogle Scholar
  60. Weathers FW, Litz BT, Herman DS, Huska JA, Keane TM (1993) The PTSD Checklist (PCL): Reliability, validity, and diagnostic utility. In: Annual convention of the international society for traumatic stress studies, International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies San AntonioGoogle Scholar
  61. Weiss DS (2007) The impact of event scale: revised. In: Wilson JP, Tang CS-K (eds) Cross-cultural assessment of psychological trauma and PTSD. Springer, Boston, pp 219–238. doi: 10.1007/978-0-387-70990-1_10 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Wilmshurst L (2005) Essentials of child psychopathology. Wiley, HobokenGoogle Scholar
  63. Yehuda R (2002) Post-traumatic stress disorder. N Engl J Med 346:108–114CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  64. Zimprich D, Kurtz T (2013) Individual differences and predictors of forgetting in old age: the role of processing speed and working memory. Aging Neuropsychol Cogn 20:195–219CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Marta Olivetti Belardinelli and Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Cognitive & Brain SciencesShahid Beheshti UniversityTehranIran
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyShahid Beheshti UniversityTehranIran

Personalised recommendations